Flights

NC craft beer industry continues to mature, despite brewery closings

Andy Miller makes a test run of Triangle Brewery's new canning equipment. Triangle Brewing co-founder Rick Tufts cites a shoestring budget and early problems canning its beers as two of the biggest reasons the brewery failed. The brewery was one of the first in the Southeast to have an automated canning line, but a manufacturing error caused beers such as the Belgian-Style Golden Ale to leak.
Andy Miller makes a test run of Triangle Brewery's new canning equipment. Triangle Brewing co-founder Rick Tufts cites a shoestring budget and early problems canning its beers as two of the biggest reasons the brewery failed. The brewery was one of the first in the Southeast to have an automated canning line, but a manufacturing error caused beers such as the Belgian-Style Golden Ale to leak. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Several North Carolina breweries have closed recently, but Erik Lars Myers cautions against using the word “bubble” to describe the current state of brewing in the state.

“It doesn’t feel like a bubble,” says Myers, founder of Hillsborough’s Mystery Brewing Co. and president of the North Carolina Craft Brewers’ Guild.

A total of 97 breweries closed last year nationally, and 68 closed in 2015, according to a recent report from the Brewers Association. For Myers, it’s reflective of an industry with a record number of breweries.

“It feels like the market is maturing, rather than some sort of fad that people are going to move away from,” Myers said. “I think that’s a naive view of the industry.”

But it also would be naive to think being a brewer today doesn’t come with its challenges. Myers notes that many small brewers are squeezed between big brewers buying up smaller brewers to gain more shelf space, and a record number of craft breweries pushing more product into distribution. In addition to this retail battle, Myers said some breweries just aren’t producing a quality product.

“A lot of it comes down to quality of beer,” Myers said. “I really feel like the more breweries we have, the less you can get by on just having beer, at least in more populated areas.”

Breweries shut down for many reasons. Durham’s Triangle Brewing Co. closed in April 2016 after being open since 2007.

A year later, Triangle Brewing co-founder Rick Tufts cites a shoestring budget and early problems canning its beers as two of the biggest reasons the brewery failed. The brewery was one of the first in the Southeast to have an automated canning line, but a manufacturing error caused beers such as the Belgian-Style Golden Ale to leak.

That canning line prompted the brewery’s growth, Tufts said, but also led to its demise.

“You really truly only get one chance to make a first impression,” Tufts said. “People aren’t going to give you a second chance anymore, and they don’t need to because there is so much variety and competition out there. Just good enough isn’t good enough anymore.”

Though Tufts had one chance to make a first impression with Triangle Brewing Co., he now has another in his newest venture, Gimghoul Brewery and Bottle Co. Tufts and his team recently broke ground on the brewery, which will open next year in Carrboro’s new South Green shopping center.

This time, Tufts said he will take a completely different approach. Instead of packaging and distributing, Gimghoul Brewery will brew on a small scale and supply only its taproom.

“We’re going to be on-premise only,” Tufts said. “I’ve totally changed my business plan and model. The breweries that are going to be successful are the ones that keep control over their beer and can grow internally in the market that they’re in, where they’re self-distributing and not putting a lot of the money into distributors or bottling and canning lines.”

This focus on the taproom experience and on-premise sales isn’t limited to smaller breweries. When Highland Brewing Co. opened in 1994, Asheville wasn’t the beer mecca it is today. Founder Oscar Wong cobbled together old dairy equipment and brewed in the basement of Barley’s Taproom. Highland finally left that basement in 2006 for its current (and much larger) brewery, but it wasn’t until 2010 that it added a taproom.

“We did not anticipate how much of the beer-drinking public would gravitate toward the brewery itself,” Wong said. “You have to balance it out with a lot of on-site experiences, and we were the last to get into that.”

It’s just one lesson of many that Wong has learned after more than two decades in the industry. In the early 2000s, he saw many breweries shut down. He attributes most of those closings to poorly made beer.

Today, Wong said that even makers of good beer aren’t immune from the effects of a fast-moving industry with players large and small.

“Nowadays, I think it’s a combination of not just making decent beer, but how is your relevance in the market?” Wong said. “How is your business acumen, your financial strength? There are so many factors now, and all you need is for one of them not to be up to snuff and you’re in trouble.”

Over the next five years, Myers said he predicts more breweries will join forces to take advantage of shared resources.

And then there is Draft Line Brewing Co. in Fuquay-Varina, which is set to close Saturday with a farewell party after being open since 2014. The owners said they wanted to spend more time with their families. But instead of shutting down the brewery on East Broad Street for good, The Mason Jar Tavern will take over the space as Mason Jar Lager Co. The Mason Jar Tavern owns two restaurants, and the brewery, led by Adam Eshbaugh, marks its first entry into brewing. It’s expected to open this summer, according to Mason Jar’s Facebook page.

“I don’t think it’s a bubble,” Myers said. “I think it’s about being agile as an entrepreneur. And if you can change and roll with the punches and see how the market moves and move with it, then I think in the long term you are going to be successful.”

Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas.” Reach him at cltbeer@gmail.com or on Twitter @DanielHartis.

N.C. Brewery Closures or Sales

2012: Craggie Brewing Co. (Asheville)

2013: Hosanna Brewing (Fuquay-Varina), Lumina Winery and Brewery (Wilmington), Roth Brewing Co. (Raleigh)

2014: Four Friends Brewing (Charlotte), Westbend Vineyards and Brewhouse (Lewisville, but has since re-opened)

2015: Beer Army Brewery (Trenton), Blackjack Brewing (Raleigh)

2016: Altamont Brewing Co. (Asheville), French Broad Brewing Co. (Asheville), G2B Restaurant and Brewery (Durham), MillerCoors (Eden), Sweet Taters Brewpub (Rocky Mount), Triangle Brewing Co. (Durham)

2017: Draft Line Brewing Co. (Fuquay-Varina), Howard Brewing Co. (Lenoir), Lake Norman Brewing Co. (Mooresville), White Rabbit Brewing Co. (Angier)

Draft Line Brewing Co. Farewell

Draft Line Brewing Co. will have a farewell party on Saturday with live music, food trucks and final chances to buy Draft Line’s beer and memorabilia. The brewery opens at noon at 341 Broad St.

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